Records can be much more than a piece of paper or a photograph. They preserve a certain moment and place in your life and are a testament to where you once were in your ever changing lifestyle. Lock 16 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is one such place that contains a silent but powerful and heartbreaking record of the past. Scratched into the sandstone coping blocks near the towpath is a crude carving about eight inches in length. The letters, some capitals, some lowercase, some backward, spell W-S-P-O-N-G. A name tragically connected with disaster, suffering, and death.
Life on the C&O Canal was hard, and accidents were part of life, but nothing like the Spong Family incident had happened before. The Daily Mail newspaper headlines on September 12, 1916 read:
Tragedy Follows Tragedy
Three Children Dead and Mother Injured in a Triple Tragedy
Wife and Children of Captain Samuel Spong, Sharpsburg, Scalded in Boat Cabin
J.P.Mose, a veteran canal boater, remembered the death of the Spong children as the worst accident he knew of on the canal. He relates the story: “This was Captain Spong, Boat no. 74. A tugboat, the Winship, hooked on them the evening before, and that would have been September 10, 1916, for them to unload the next morning. They locked out in the river lock at Rock creek, and the Winship took them up to the powerhouse-right along the Potomac river. (There was a ) concrete wall along there, and there’s where they unloaded. There was a pipe come out of that wall. I don’t rightly know the size of that pipe, but I’ll say around four to six inches. It came out straight, and there was an elbow in it, and the pipe went down to the river. They used to blow the boiler off, mostly at six o’clock in the morning. “ They did this on the morning of September 11th.
“Mr. Spong and his oldest son Thomas, they were on the boat getting ready to unload, putting up the hatches. His wife, Nina-they called her Nine-she was up also, but those children weren’t.”
The children were Johnny, aged 13; Willie, aged 11; and Sarah, aged 6. All were asleep in the boat cabin, which was moored directly next to the steam pipe on the side of the Capital Traction Company in Washington City.
Around 6:00am, the steam was released from the boilers. The steam was blown with such force that it knocked the elbow off the straight part of the pipe, which then blew a powerful jet of steam straight out from the wall.
“All that steam forced right into the boat, straight into the cabin. Naturally…a mother is a mother, and she tried to save them. She got scalded pretty bad. I don’t know what hospital she was in, but she was there for several months. The undertaker from Sharpsburg come down and got the three children and took them to Sharpsburg and they were buried in Mountain View Cemetery. Captain Spong never boated any more after that.”
The Spong Family tragedy is an example of how difficult life could be on the canal. It is also a reminder of how precious life is and how quickly it can change or be taken away. When Willie Spong carved his name in the capstones of Lock 15, he couldn’t possibly have imagined what was about to happen to him or his family.